Like the name implies: this is a story of a band. To get inside the man, read Heavier Than Heaven : A Biography of Kurt Cobain.
I recently read both of these books back-to-back because these are the two books out of three that are most commonly described as "accurate" (the third one being Come As You Are). Since Azerrad's book was not available in my local libraries at the moment, and having already seen the documentary "Kurt Cobain: About a Son" which featured Azerrad's audio interviews that were used as a material for the book, I figured I'm not missing out on much one way or the other.
I pretty much just wanted to know for once and for all why this funny, lovable guy ended up blowing his brain out for no good reason, and if we could not possible learn some lesson here.
I'm just going to write about Cross' book too, since they are both intertwined in my mind as one book anyways (with the exception that Cross' book was actually well written).
Since I was pretty much alive when Nirvana was only the biggest thing around in the popular culture, I already had the basics covered concerning the band. Even when my memories had grown vague about what Kurt had actually scribbled in his journals, I remembered that this guy was no accident. He was smart in his own way and anything but a guy who didn't know what he was trying to accomplish. Kurt wanted to become a rock star and he figured he had the drive and the talents to do so.
Frankly, I don't understand why people want to hear so desperately about the bands rather than about the people behind those bands who make the actual music happen. I believe there has never been a successful band where its members' creative input (=significance) has been equal. In arts specifically democratic participation has never amounted to much if anything at all. All great bands are great because there's someone who says: "No, I need you to play it like this, that is just shit." Kurt was Nirvana's despot and without him it would not have existed at all. I'm happy that Dave Grohl still manages to get his kick out of touring with his AOR-band, but I'm even happier to see Krist Novoselic do something actually respectable.
Writing Nirvana off as merely a fluke and a trend and Cobain as nothing but a druggie, is the easiest thing for people to say and to feel like a better wo/man.
But let's get one thing straight first: Americans have been enchanted by drugs ever since they were introduced to the masses in the 60's and 70's. Not surprisingly in the 80's and early 90's every cool kid did dope as well.
There's always certain amount of debauchery and egotistical behavior going on when we look into the lives of any rock band. Documenting who f*cked who and who did what crazy stuff while intoxicated is besides the point, and frankly, boring. I'm no rock star but I've done my share of boozing - maybe more than the next guy, maybe less. Point is, today it's pretty hard to "impress" anyone. You don't have to be an illiterate, arrogant rock star to do drugs, to sport a million tattoos and body piercings, to flunk out of school, and to generally piss away your life. Any wanker can do that. And these hazy crazy reminiscences always sound crazier than they really were.
No one is denying that Kurt didn't do heroin. That is a fact. Yes, Kurt might even have used more drugs already in his youth than his peers, but it's all relative. First off, people react to drugs individually. Secondly, the more you use, the higher tolerance you will develop. And thirdly, before "Nevermind" was starting to churn money, Kurt had always been more or less broke. It would not have been even financially possible to maintain a habit before the success. And fourth, Kurt lied about having had used heroin in the 80's. And fifth, a former junkie (and Kurt's drug buddy) who's seen many succumb to heroin says in effect that Kurt was an early stage heroin addict who was still in denial and who would most likely have come out it just fine in due course, had people only left him be.
Some insist that Kurt really preferred getting f*cked up rather than staying sober. A lot of folks not only share this sentiment but actually live by it, too. Instead of heroin, they just stick with alcohol and subscription pills. It feels much, much less evil and much less dirty, dangerous or even harmful than shooting up. They might be right, but they are still treating the disease (whatever it may be) the same way - in principal.
Would it be surprising to hear that Kurt too was shocked when he learned for the first time that his friend had tried heroin? Like any decent friend, Kurt scolded him. He thought it was stupid and dangerous thing to be doing. But I bet before Kurt had taken his first puff of marijuana, he had deemed also pot stupid and dangerous. This is how the logic goes.
No, heroin isn't pot, and pot isn't a cigarette. Heroin is a pain killer that works much faster and more reliably than, say, drinking alcohol. Kurt himself explained that he started to use heroin because it was the only thing that was making his chronic stomach pains go away. One can always say that this is how addicts tend to legitimize their use. I can imagine that to be true in many - even in most - cases.
Then again, I have never had to endure the sort of pain in my stomach that Kurt described he had to endure pretty much every time he wanted to eat something. Maybe you have? And Kurt was pretty infamous for not eating much. But I'm sure he was just making this all up. I am not at all suggesting that modern medical science wouldn't have ultimately figured out what was causing his pains. It's just that Kurt had already found a cure he figured he could manage to live with. Without a doubt it came as a godsent bonus that heroin pretty much also made him forget all the other things he found troubling his worried mind.
And Kurt was a worried guy alright.
He was always worried about (losing) money because he had never had any (pre-Nevermind). He had also somehow convinced himself that Courtney was cheating on him, yet he couldn't even handle the very notion of a divorce nor being the one to subjugate his own daughter to those feelings of abandonment that he was very familiar with in his own childhood and youth. In a way Kurt had always been somewhat lost, somewhat love sick puppy everyone except his anonymous junkie friends seemed to want a piece of.
Like most successful artists, he too was suffering from those oh-so-existential questions that deal with arbitrary notions of "authenticity", "staying true", "being loyal", "being real", and so on. He knew his fans would ultimately buy anything he chose to present them with. He would publicly rant about evil labels, corporations and whatnot, while outside the public eye he wanted his music to be promoted at every possible chance.
You see, at some point all artists start hating their previous work, sabotaging their own shows. They start isolating from the public, start running away from fans, friends and family and from other band members as well. They want to take a break, break up the band, branch out and become a painter/writer/director/whatnot and generally wanting more credit (=money) and exposure (though not too much and preferably not anything neg). They might say stuff like how they welcome the remaining members to participate more - yet in actuality work hard at making that damn near impossible. They are always left wanting. For something that even they themselves can't put a finger on.
We'll all seen this pattern a thousand times.
"Nevermind" is still one of the greatest rock albums around, but critics like to pan it because it's "too polished and lacking depth and dynamics" when they really want to say it's "too commercial". They like to remind us that "In Utero" is "much more mature work - more experimental, openly candid, and raw". This is just another way of saying it's full of self-pity, nonsense and half-assed songs that were probably recorded like crap on purpose.
I wouldn't say it's a bad record. I'm just pissed of when I know what the man was capable of and particularly because that album ended up being his last one. I'm pleased to hear that Grohl pretty much copied Chad Channing's original drum playing on "Nevermind". He was the new guy, and was simply told to do so. I don't personally pay much attention to drums because I can't drum worth shit, but when those more experienced assert that Grohl is a hard hitting machine, I kinda see what they mean.
When I overheard Foo Fighters playing live in almost our backyard about a year ago, I didn't really feel much, if anything. And this is coming from someone who - after hearing Grohl sing Marigold while Nirvana was still around - though that, my god, he's doing it better than Kurt. Now all these years ago, I tend to think that Grohl's 1995 debut is likely the best r'n'r he can muster, and that as a performer and a songwriter, he managed to become the man whom Kurt never wanted to end up as: indifferent and bland.
By now it's part of the official Nirvana canon that Chad Channing was fired because he couldn't play well enough. That's pretty funny coming from a guy who - let's face it - was a sloppy and at best intermediate guitarist himself. I think that sacking had much more obvious reasons: Channing was too pleasant, too nice of a guy who didn't share Kurt's positively negative look on life either. He probably didn't even take (making) music that seriously. Krist and Kurt on the other hand were like an old couple who really needed to make it happen: they had absolutely nothing they could fall back on.
You will no doubt hate the way True tells the story. He desperately wants to be viewed in the annals of rock history as the fifth Beatle - or rather the fourth member of Nirvana. "I introduced Courtney to Kurt.", "Who was I to tell Kurt what to do?", and so on. True is still under the impression that he played a bigger part in the story of Nirvana, let alone in the life of Kurt Cobain, than most people realize (and give him credit for).
Yes, you befriended the band, its frontman, Courtney Love, and many other folks who happened to hang around the band and Cobain, particularly. A paid dog who kinda hopes to not be seen as a paid dog but as a True (sic), fellow and suffering, artist. If you want to be a rock journalist who gets to write more than just about how the gigs went, sorta kinda has to make the effort to try and befriend with the band. Particularly when it comes to up-and-coming and famous people it always works wonders if and when you suck up to these people and party with them (at command or willingly). Or be their nanny, the father figure, the funny foreigner, the useful idiot. Or whatever the hell it is that these people want you to be for them, if only for a little while.
Kurt might have been a pretty selfish s.o.b., but he was a self-made man also. Everett True a.k.a. Jerry Thackray was a music journo who was hoping a little bit of rock stardust might eventually latch onto his clothing too. If it's true that The Laughing Apple's (not that anyone's heard of this particular band either) lead singer Alan McGee (not that anyone would know who he is and why it would even matter) said of Thackray that he "was the most un-enigmatic, boring, kindest, shyest person you could ever meet - and it just appealed to my sense of humour to make him compère", I can't help but wonder if another frontman saw and did exactly the same...